What Does a Herniated Disc Feel Like?

A man in a dress shirt and dress pants holding his lower back with both hands, likely because his back is hurting.
  • Herniations occur when discs in the spine leak fluid due to a tear, and the leaked contents or the displaced disc then press against a spinal nerve. A herniated disc may cause back pain that radiates to other parts of the body.
  • Men, elderly people, and those who sit for long periods of time are among the most at risk of developing a disc herniation. However, herniated discs can occur from injuries, too.
  • Most herniated discs will heal on their own, but more severe cases may require surgery.
  • There are various treatments available for herniated discs, including conservative and surgical treatments.

Around 5 to 20 cases of herniated discs are diagnosed for every 100 adults in the U.S.

Disc herniation is twice as likely to affect men than women, with most cases occurring in those between the ages of 30 and 50.

People with herniated discs can have mild, moderate, or severe pain, while others show no symptoms at all.

Most herniated discs occur in the lumbar spine (lower part of your spine), with the most commonly reported symptom being leg pain.

In this article, we’ll cover disc herniation, what it feels like, how to recognize it, treatment options, and when you should see a doctor.

What is a Herniated Disc?

Your spine is made up of bones (vertebrae) and cushioned discs. A herniated disc occurs when one of these cushioned discs tear and the jelly-like substance (known as nucleus pulposus) inside it leaks out and enters the spinal canal.

Pain from a herniated disc occurs when the disc — or the fluid leaking out of its soft center — presses against a nerve, causing you to feel pain, numbness, or weakness in one or more parts of your body.

A herniated disc can occur due to general wear and tear caused by old age (disc degeneration), an injury, or a combination of the two.

In 90% of cases, a herniated disc can heal on its own within six months, but if over-the-counter medications recommended by your doctor don’t work, you may need physical therapy, surgery, or a combination of treatments to relieve pain and restore mobility.

Key Point: What are Some Other Names for a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc goes by many different names. It could also be referred to as a:

  • Slipped disc
  • Protruding disc
  • Ruptured disc
  • Prolapsed disc

What Are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disc?

Although a herniated disc is located in the spinal cord, the sensation doesn’t feel like typical back pain.

It rather manifests as a tingling sensation in other areas of the body, depending on which region of the spinal cord is affected and also which spinal nerves the disc is pressing against.

Here are some symptoms of a herniated disc:

  • Pain: If you have disc herniation in your lower back, the pain will typically radiate from your spine to your leg, buttocks, or foot. It may feel like a tingle or a burning pain.

Your shoulder or arm will be affected if the herniated disc is in your neck or upper spine, and you may experience radiating pain from sudden movements, such as a cough or sneeze.

  • Sensations on one side of the body: In the event that the sciatic nerve (the nerve in the lower spine that is connected to your legs, hips, and buttocks) is affected, you could experience strange sensations that feel a lot like electrical shocks on one side of the body.

  • Numbness: A numb or tingling feeling may occur in the hands, feet, legs, or arms depending on which spinal nerves are pinched.

  • Pain during certain activities: Your pain gets worse during activities like laughing, coughing, sneezing, bending, or lifting something.

  • Relief from pain while resting: Sitting in a reclining position or lying on your back may help with pain management if you have a herniated disc.

  • Pain when sitting: If you have a ruptured disc that affects your lower spinal cord, sitting down may cause significant pain.

Woman in a purple t-shirt is sitting in a chair and has her right hand on her mid to lower back. She appears to be in discomfort.
Key Point: What Else Could it Be?

The signs of a herniated disc can be difficult to identify and the following conditions may be mistaken for a slipped disc:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Piriformis syndrome (PS)
  • Muscular disorders (especially in the buttocks)
  • Mild sciatica
  • Tumors of the spinal cord
  • Degenerative disc disease (DDD)
  • Cauda equina syndrome (CES)

Some of the disorders listed above share common symptoms with herniated discs, but a medical professional will be able to provide an accurate diagnosis and prescribe the right treatment.

How is a Herniated Disc Diagnosed?

It’s possible to make an educated guess about the underlying cause of your pain by assessing your symptoms. However, you’ll need a medical professional to perform a physical exam to accurately diagnose a disc herniation.

If you suspect you have a slipped disc, contact your healthcare provider and schedule an appointment.

Your doctor will conduct a physical exam to test your:

  • Muscle strength
  • Reflexes
  • Mobility
  • Level of pain

Here are some of the tests that may be done to diagnose a slipped disc:

  • X-rays: An X-ray won’t pick up a disc herniation, but it can rule out other conditions, such as tumors.

  • Computed tomography scan (CT scan): A CT scan takes images of your spine that can help doctors diagnose a lumbar disc herniation.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRIs are considered the most effective imaging test to diagnose disc herniation. With this test, doctors can confirm the precise location of the slipped disc.

  • Myelogram: For this test, dye is injected into the spine before a CT scan. This test reveals where there’s pressure on the spine and also where the spinal canal is narrowed.

  • Electromyogram (EMG): An EMG can help doctors identify nerve damage by finding pinched nerves and nerve roots that are under pressure.

If you suspect you have a slipped disc — especially if it’s causing you pain and lying down brings no relief — contact a doctor immediately.

What Treatment Options are Available?

Even though most herniated discs will heal on their own, there are treatments available for pain relief and inflammation, or to improve or restore mobility. Sometimes a combination of treatments will be needed

Most people with slipped discs will opt for conservative (noninvasive) therapy over surgical therapy. Here are some treatment options:

Conservative treatments (non-surgical options)

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (for example, ibuprofen and naproxen)
  • Heat and ice therapy for pain management
  • Physical therapy or chiropractic manipulation
  • Narcotic pain medication
  • Gentle stretching and exercise
  • Epidural steroid injections to ease pain and decrease inflammation
  • Reducing weight and adopting a more active lifestyle
  • Alternative treatments and herbal remedies for pain relief
  • Gentle activities, such as yoga, walking, and aquatic therapy
  • A break from strenuous exercise to slowly build your strength before resuming normal activities

Surgical treatments

  • Laminotomy/laminectomy
  • Discectomy/microdiscectomy
  • Spinal fusion
  • Artificial disc surgery
A woman sits on a yoga mat in a cross-legged or lotus position. Her face is not shown in the frame.

How Serious is a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc can cause considerable pain and discomfort, in addition to restricting movement. However, it’s seldom a cause for big concern. In most cases, a slipped disc will heal on its own while the pain is managed with medication or other treatments.

It is important to visit the doctor or schedule a telemedicine appointment if you suspect you have a herniated disc or one of the other conditions mentioned earlier.

Untreated ruptured discs can have serious consequences, such as:

  • Intense, debilitating pain
  • Permanent nerve damage
  • Cauda equina syndrome (CES)
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control (incontinence)
  • Permanent paralysis

How Long Does it Take for a Herniated Disc to Heal?

A herniated disc can take up to six months to heal on its own. Some slipped discs never fully heal. Certain lifestyle habits, such as constantly sitting or lifting heavy objects, play a role in how long it takes to recover and whether or not you’ll make a full recovery.

While rest is necessary to recover from a herniated disc, it’s important that individuals resume low-impact activities, such as walking and light stretching, to help with recovery.

You may experience pain when you begin to move around again and certain medications, such as muscle relaxants, can help make this easier (especially if you’re undergoing physical therapy).

As soon as you see signs of a herniated disc, get treatment. The sooner you get treated, the quicker and smoother your recovery process will be.

How Can I Prevent a Herniated Disc?

There are simple steps you can take that will decrease your chances of developing a herniated disc. Disc herniation can be caused by injury as well, but there are certain factors you can control.

Here are some ways you can avoid a herniated disc:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Stretch and walk around during your workday, especially if you work in an office or your job requires you to sit for long periods
  • Invest in a standing desk to encourage movement
  • Wear shoes that are effective shock absorbers and provide good arch support
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Maintain good posture whether you’re sitting, standing, walking, or sleeping
  • Never stay in one position for too long
  • Practice correct lifting techniques
  • Quit smoking
A closeup of a woman's legs and feet as she walks down a path. The woman is wearing cropped black workout pants and orange and blue athletic sneakers.

When Should I See a Doctor?

If your herniated disc is restricting your movement, causing pain that makes it difficult to complete daily tasks, or if you aren’t responding well to pain medication, you should see a doctor.

In the event that your symptoms worsen, you should contact your healthcare provider.

Here are some severe symptoms that warrant a doctor’s visit:

  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Loss of sensation in the legs and feet
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of fine motor skills

Where Can I Learn More About Treatments for Herniated Discs?

If you’re experiencing arm or leg pain, or have any of the other symptoms discussed in this article, you might have a ruptured disc that requires treatment.

LifeMD’s telemedicine services make it easy to get quality medical care from board-certified doctors and nurse practitioners. Head over to LifeMD.com to make a video appointment.

LifeMD makes it easy to stay on top of your health because talking to a doctor, filling your prescriptions, getting your labs done—and more—are all easy and cost-effective. Come discover a healthcare solution built around you and your life.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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